The Department for Education (DfE) has calculated that 22 per cent of teachers in England leave the profession within their first two years of teaching, with the number rising to 33 per cent by year five (Foster, 2019). In 2019, I carried out some research into foreign education systems to find out whether they could hold any secrets for how to improve these worrying retention rates; interviews were conducted with teachers, school leaders and government officials across Singapore, Norway and Switzerland. These conversations revealed a number of factors that contribute to such low attrition rates in these countries (between two and eight per cent), but could we use any of these strategies to retain new teachers in England?
You would be forgiven for thinking that the only way to improve attrition rates is by reducing the workload of new staff. After all, the majority of teachers leaving the profession in England cite extraneous workload as the most significant reason for their decision to leave (Perryman and Calvert, 2019). However, it seems that high workloads and teaching come hand in hand, no matter what country you are teaching in. Geraldine, a new teacher in a secondary school in Singapore, explained that ‘The biggest challenge has been overcoming your own tiredness… you’re working seven days a week’, while Wenche, who teaches science in Oslo, stated: ‘When I got home in the evening I was crying because there was so much stress; I had such a headache.’ Obviously, extraneous workload is a problem that needs to be reduced in English schools; however, cutting down on the number of superfluous tasks may not automatically improve retention rates. The situation is ultimately more complex than this, and teachers, school leaders and policymakers perhaps need to shift their focus when discussing teacher attrition. We must consider the pull factors (what keeps new teachers in the profession) rather than simply trying to reduce the push factors (the issues that encourage them to leave).
One huge pull factor among these international systems is the financial benefits that teachers receive. For example, a high starting salary makes teaching a lucrative career in Switzerland, with teachers in the top Gymnasium schools starting on upwards of £80,000. Sara, a trainee teacher, explained that ‘the salary means a lot… it makes the job more attractive’. The DfE are perhaps starting to take note of their foreign counterparts in this regard, as it was announced in September 2019 that starting salaries of new teachers in England would increase to £30,000 by 2022. However, base salary is only one aspect of a profession that is certainly more rewarding internationally. In Singapore, for instance, teachers can expect annual bonuses of two to three months’ salary, dependent on their annual appraisal. The Ministry of Education in the city state also established the Connect Plan in 2002, a retention scheme that contributes between £1,000 and £3,000 per year for every teacher. Again, from 2020, science and modern foreign language teachers in England will receive similar retention bonuses of between £6,000 and £9,000 after four years; however, this measure was created to bolster recruitment within particular subjects, rather than reduce attrition rates across the board.
As well as justifying the status of teachers, high salaries also enable many educators in these countries to work flexibly, and it is becoming increasingly common for teachers to work part time in Norway and Switzerland. For example, I interviewed a group of trainees at the University of Teacher Education in Zürich and all of them explained that they intended to start on a part-time contract, something that is now commonplace in most secondary schools. ‘I do not think it is possible to be the teacher they train you to be here if you are working full time… it’s impossible,’ stated Simon, who was in his final year. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this flexibility will become commonplace for NQTs in England. After all, even with the higher starting salaries of £30,000, it simply would not be viable for many young professionals to drop down to 60 per cent (and £18,000). Nevertheless, perhaps moving to a Scandinavian model of teacher flexibility is a more practical solution for cash-strapped teachers and schools in England. In the schools I visited across Norway, teachers were able to come and go as they pleased throughout the day; there was no traditional culture of having to stay in school from 8.00 am until 5.00 pm. Marte, a teacher of English and history in Trondheim, explained that ‘You are completely free to arrive late and leave early… nobody is checking when we are in.’ If a greater number of senior leaders in English schools were more trusting and open to a flexible workforce, then perhaps retention rates in schools would steadily increase. After all, this movement towards flexible working is already commonplace in other industries.
It is clear that there are various aspects of these foreign education systems that help to keep attrition rates so low. Financial rewards, professional trust and flexible working all justify the huge workloads that our international counterparts have to endure. There are also mentoring, induction and professional development strategies that are more developed within these foreign systems; however, I have not got the space to discuss these in detail here. While the DfE’s early career framework, introduced in 2019, makes a number of terrific promises for future teachers, it is unclear yet whether these will be delivered in practice. There is even the question of whether this framework goes far enough; very little is mentioned about the possibility of new teachers working flexibly or part time, for example. For now, it seems, teachers and schools must continue to do what we have always done. We must create changes on a smaller scale by sharing best practice within our schools and within our wider education networks. Until government policy catches up, we must ensure that, as colleagues, mentors and school leaders, we are creating a profession that protects new teachers and allows them to flourish as educators.
Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Early career framework. Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/773705/Early-Career_Framework.pdf (accessed 1 May 2020).
Foster D (2019) Teacher Recruitment and Retention in England (House of Commons No. 7222). London: House of Commons.
Perryman J and Calvert G (2019) What motivates people to teach, and why do they leave? British Journal of Educational Studies 68: 3–23.